Heron > Education > Repertoire


Founded as a “Renaissance choir,” Blue Heron might be more accurately described as a 21st-century vocal ensemble that mostly sings music composed between 1400 and 1600. These dates, conveniently round and memorable, encompass what is usually taught as the Renaissance in music history classes, a huge period extending from the birthdates of John Dunstable and Guillaume Du Fay to the beginnings of opera and the widespread adoption of basso continuo. Whether the enormous quantity of music composed within these two centuries actually belongs to a coherent and distinguishable “musical Renaissance” is a matter of considerable debate, to say the least. Whatever one’s answer to that question, however, it is beyond argument that these were golden years for polyphonic vocal music. There is such a wealth of wonderful music from this period that one can easily wander off from the few well-trodden main paths and still find more than enough fantastic music to last an ensemble’s lifetime, and it gives us great pleasure to find music that is seldom sung and less often heard live but that has the power to make a person sit up and listen. Some of this music is lesser-known work by well-known composers, and some of it is music by composers even specialists don't know. And sometimes we like to sing famous pieces, too!

Within the general confines of 1400 to 1600, Blue Heron’s repertoire interests fall into several broad areas. On the early end we have begun to explore English music from the Old Hall manuscript of circa 1415, following this thread through the works of Dunstable (the first of which date from the 1420s) and into the generation or so afterwards, including Walter Frye, Robert Morton, and a host of sundry composers, some anonymous, many named John. Another thread connects Dunstable to Du Fay and Binchois via the celebrated “contenance angloise” and thence to the famous “central tradition” of fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish polyphony, ranging from Du Fay through Johannes Ockeghem to Josquin Desprez, onwards to Nicolas Gombert and beyond. While our main focus is sacred polyphony, we have also devoted considerable energy to the study and performance of secular song.

Entering the sixteenth century, we have explored Spanish music between about 1500 and 1575, including music sung in New Spain, and have been fortunate enough to present what we believe to be North American premieres of several works by Cristóbal de Morales and Francisco Guerrero, recently rediscovered and edited by the Australian musicologist and conductor Michael Noone, now a member of the faculty at Boston College. In April 2008 we will venture later in the century in a spectacular program of music circa 1600, featuring singers, the cornetts, shawms, and trombones of the Boston Shawm & Sackbut Ensemble, strings, organ, and Spanish triple harp—more than two dozen musicians in all. This concert is presented in conjunction with the exhibition El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from April 20 to July 27, 2008. (For more information on the exhibition, visit www.mfa.org.) Much of the repertoire on the concert as well as the art presented in the exhibition is connected to Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas (1552-1625), Duke of Lerma, perhaps the most important non-royal collector of art in Europe during the reign of Philip III of Spain. Our program will be conceived in collaboration with Douglas Kirk of Montreal, the world’s foremost expert on the Duke of Lerma as a patron of music.

Blue Heron’s debut concerts in October 1999 featured music from the Peterhouse partbooks (c. 1540), a very important and largely neglected source of early sixteenth-century English sacred music. We continue to present works from this rich and unexplored repertory, which has been made accessible once again through the marvelous efforts of the English musicologist Nick Sandon.

The ensemble has also reached outside these areas to perform very early music (organa by the twelfth-century French composer Perotinus), very recent music (new works by Elliott Gyger), and more, including the complete Eighth Book of Madrigals by Luca Marenzio, prepared for the international Marenzio conference at Harvard University in April 2006.

As for what a “choir” might be, see Performance practice.